A view from Hirta island in the St Kilda archipelago

Think you know St Kilda? Well…

This week my story research led me on a quest to find out about the mysterious Saint Kilda, origin of the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda, only to discover that no such saint ever existed.

The Australian St Kilda, it turns out, is named after a ship, the Lady of St Kilda. This ship, in turn, was named after an archipelago in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. And the Scottish archipelago was named after… a mistake.

One of a number of possible mistakes, in fact.

This group of islands was first labelled “St Kilda” on a 1666 Dutch map. But long before the Dutch showed up, the archipelago had a history of visitation by the Norse. Vikings had been in the area since at least the beginning of the 13th Century, and the legacy they left included some confusing place names.

The largest island in the chain, for instance, is called Hirta – which scholars suggest might derive from a number of Celtic words (Irish ler meaning “west”, Scots Gaelic hIar-Tìr or “westland”, or even the Celtic Ei hirt, meaning “dangerous or deathlike”) or from the Norse hirtir (“stag”) or hirt (“shepherd”).

Meanwhile, the archipelago itself appears to have been first named by the Dutch, who based their choice on either:

  • the Norse words sunt kelda, meaning “sweet wellwater”;
  • a mishearing of the locals referring to Hirta, which based on Scots pronunciation could have plausibly been heard as “Kilta”;
  • a cartographic error causing them to name the area after Skildar, another Hebridean island found nowhere near there;
  • or, my favourite option: the false assumption that Tobar Childa, also called Toubir-Kilda, a sacred spring on Hirta, was named after a saint. Whether or not this was the original mistake, the assumption of a namesake[?] can certainly be traced back to the time – 17th Century Scottish writer Martin Martin claimed that the name St Kilda “is taken from one Kilder, who lived here; and from him the large well Toubir-Kilda has also its name”.

The only problem with this idea: in actuality, the name Tobar Childa has nothing to do with either a saint or a local resident. It is made up of the Scots Gaelic tobar and the Norse childa, both meaning spring or well.

That’s right, its literal translation is… well well.

More info here

Image source: Wikimedia Commons user Otter, licensed via Creative Commons
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